Prime Minister of St. Kitts and Nevis the Hon. Dr. Timothy Harris denies he’s trying to disenfranchise voters, indicating he’s seeking to implement a fairer electoral system in the Federation with recent changes to the National Assembly Elections act.
The Government late last month brought the National Assembly Elections Amendment bill 2018 and gave its first reading in the parliament. The bill seeks to introduce a residency requirement for nationals of six months to be eligible to vote in a particular constituency.
Many in the public view the move as a mechanism to prevent Nationals from overseas to vote. However Prime Minister Harris indicated at his most recent press conference the move signals their willingness to bring real change to the system.
He said, The list will be cleaned up, a brand new enumeration exercise will be meticulously pursued. The electoral boundaries commission will shortly be activated and since we operate on a constituency basis voters are expected to vote where they reside.
Dr. Harris indicated that it was unfair for voters who ordinarily reside in St. Pauls, but seek to determine the election outcome for the people residing in Old Road. Our effort to bring a fairer electoral system is not intended to disenfranchise any group or anyone.
He highlighted however, that there is no intention to highlight any voter. For the record, this government does not discriminate against our citizens. The law is the law, for nationals registering and voting whether they live in New York or Parson Ground, the residency requirement obtains for all.
Every country determines the requirements for voting and we have adopted some clear rules. The residency requirements is not new for St. Kitts and Nevis.
PM Harris recounted former Premier Sir Lee Llewellyn Moores resistance to the issue. I can still recall the eloquence of Sir Lee Moore on this matter arguing against conflating citizenship and the right to vote. There are distinct concepts and entitlements he reminded us. The mere act of citizenship is not of and by itself a sufficient qualification to vote.
He however indicated that not all citizens of the Federation have an entitlement to vote. Our system, for example, predicated on the principle of adult suffrage. In the context of St. Kitts and Nevis it then means a citizens or National who has not yet made 18 years no matter if he or she is working cannot vote.
He continued, That I think dramatizes the point, we have to make the clear distinction between citizenship and right to vote. I say that to bring those examples to show there are distinct concepts that we have to treat with.
Dr. Harris admitted those who oppose the residency argument are logical in their view, and indicated the length of time is open for discussion. There is a reasonable argument about the period of the residency requirement. Should it be six months, should it be six weeks or six years these are things as the debate continues we are going to be able to reach a happy medium with respect to that.
He reminded that they only had the first reading of the Bill to gauge the publics response. The amendment when it becomes law will affect all of us whether you live here or elsewhere in terms of requirement for residency. There is no political motive with respect to its implementation. If you go back to several of the reports from observer missions they will speak to the issue of residency requirement being clearer as one way of ensuring a greater perception of fairness in the system.
He gave an example using former Prime Minister Dr. Denzil Douglas of how the current system can cause concerns.
It is one thing for the Leader of the Opposition to boast that he is a St. Pauls man and live on Main Street and it is another thing for the voter in East Basseterre to go to Bird Rock and see the same man who supposed to be in St. Pauls voting in East Basseterre.
These are issues we must confront if we are to give the public a better confidence in the system and avoid calculated manipulation of electoral outcomes, Harris reiterated.
The Prime Minister acknowledged that the issue will not get 100 percent consensus but called for the establishment of a principle to be guided that woks for everyone.
So what you need is to get the principle right. In terms of the implementation of the principle there may be points of preference. Some may say six months is too little some may say three years.
He also indicated that the residency requirement is very popular in the region. In Antigua and Barbuda six months, Bahamas three months, Barbados three months, Belize two months in the BVI you have to be resident and in the Cayman Islands you have to be resident for two years.
What we are doing in nothing so new and disastrous, it is what some of the best practices are throughout the region and beyond and that is what we are trying to do.
He added that the residency requirement pertains to every voter in St. Kitts and Nevis. It makes a nonsense of the constituency process if people can willy-nilly move. The constituencies are geographically determined and therefore something must be wrong if you can have this where a bus load of people and more could suddenly get up one morning for the purpose of the election and have it in a particular district you can see the kind of tensions that can be created if we do not have good regulations.
Many of the seats he reminded are won marginally and part of the tension come from those issues.